My reading for the 2011 Cybils continues! Although I’m on the YA panel—no fantasy or science fiction for this girl until January—I just discovered two books that will appeal to fans of dystopian stories. Even better, they’ll also appeal to the many readers who, like me, are feeling Dystopia-d Out.
Read Bookshelves of Doom's last column, on Lois Duncan's Locked in Time
First up is Janet Ruth Young’s The Babysitter Murders. In it, 17-year-old Dani starts having disturbing thoughts about hurting those she cares the most about—especially Alex, the little boy she babysits. When she quits her job, she explains her reasoning to Alex’s mother... who promptly calls the police. Before long, the story leaks, and the press gets involved. Dani never hurt Alex in any way—all she ever did was try to protect him—but people start calling for her blood.
The Babysitter Murders is written in the present tense with third-person narration, so there’s no telling if Dani will make it through unscathed... or whether or not she’ll give in to her dark thoughts. Many of the chapters are shorter than one page, and they constantly shift focuses and formats—from prose to blog post to newspaper article to instant message—keep it from ever slowing down. Proof? I read all 300+ pages in one sitting, despite the fact that the story and the characters are pretty thin.
How to sell it to dystopia fans: Recommend it as a pre-dystopian dystopia—there are people in this book who’d be very happy to live in a Minority Report world, and if they have their way, they will...
I admit it. I’d been avoiding this one. Can you blame me? The cover says one thing: D.E.P.R.E.S.S.I.N.G. Well, depressing-with-a-dash-of-hope, hence the seedling poking through the snow, right? But, still. Snow + Barbed Wire = Never A Good Thing.
And then, when I finally read the flap copy, I discover that it’s about the deportation of Lithuanians to forced labor camps in Siberia during WWII? Well. In this case, Cover Judging didn’t steer me wrong.
Or did it?
Kind of. Is it hideously sad? Yes. Does it wallow in that sadness? No.
In the middle of the night, 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and their mother are arrested by the secret police and loaded onto a train bound for Siberia. Their crime? Lina isn’t sure, really, though she’s knows that her father—who was arrested separately—doesn’t agree with Stalin’s regime.
What follows is a coming-of-age tale set in a desolate, violent, unpredictable environment. Lina, her family and the rest of the deportees attempt to hold onto hope and to retain their humanity while living in conditions no one should ever have to live in, while being forced to make choices no one should ever have to make—all because they were related to the wrong person, because they said the wrong thing, because they caught the wrong eye, because they smiled at the wrong moment. It’s beautifully written, with regular, warm glimpses into Lina’s past that both provide needed respites from her present and emphasize the horrors of it.
Like The Babysitter Murders, I read Between Shades of Gray in one sitting: but for a completely different reason. The Babysitter Murders is a page-turner, plain and simple. It kept me wondering about what would happen next. But Between Shades of Gray made me forget about everything else around me. It made me forget I was even reading, let alone reading a novel. It’s pitch-perfect in every way, and from the first few pages, I was so immersed in its world that I forgot about my own.
How to sell it to dystopia fans: It’s being marketed as well-researched, literary historical fiction, an Important Document that sheds light on events that are largely unknown to its audience, but Between Shades of Gray is also a totally gripping survival story. It will be unfortunate if the focus on it as the former scares off readers who would really, really enjoy it as the latter.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably maniacally organizing all of her music into far-too-specific Spotify playlists.